Minnesota Court Rules That Criminal Libel Statute Is Unconstitutional

A few states retain archaic statutes making some types of libel a crime. They're rarely used. They show up fairly regularly in stupid legal threats, and very occasionally in politically motivated harassment prosecutions.

Yesterday the Minnesota Court of Appeals struck down that state's criminal libel statute.

Minnesota's statute criminalizes statements that "expose[] a person or a group, class or association to hatred, contempt, ridicule, degradation or disgrace in society, or injury to business or occupation." It offers a defense of justification for a few exceptions:

Violation of subdivision 2 is justified if:

(1) the defamatory matter is true and is communicated with good motives and for justifiable ends; or

(2) the communication is absolutely privileged; or

(3) the communication consists of fair comment made in good faith with respect to persons participating in matters of public concern; or

(4) the communication consists of a fair and true report or a fair summary of any judicial, legislative or other public or official proceedings; or

(5) the communication is between persons each having an interest or duty with respect to the subject matter of the communication and is made with intent to further such interest or duty.

Isanti County prosecuted Timothy Robert Turner for violation of this statute when he posted malicious ads on Craigslist in the name of his ex-girlfriend and her daughter soliciting strangers for sex. He added their cell phone numbers. Timothy Robert Turner is scum.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed that Turner's actions were contemptible and defamatory. But they found that the statute violates the First Amendment. First, it doesn't recognize that truth is an absolute defense to defamation — under the statute, you could be criminally prosecuted for making a true statement without "good motives." Second, it criminally punishes false statements about public figures or matters of public concern without requiring the government to show that the statements were made with actual malice — the long-standing standard protecting such speech.

Notice that the loathsome Timothy Robert Turner's speech was unquestionably false, and wasn't uttered about public figures or matters of public concern. But the Court overturned the statute in his case and reversed his conviction anyway. Why? In First Amendment cases, when a statute is so defective that it prohibits a substantial amount of constitutionally protected speech, courts will allow a litigant to challenge the entire statute even if the particular litigant's speech could constitutionally be punished. That's sometimes called the overbreadth doctrine. Here, the state conceded that the statute was overbroad (and possibly even conceded that it's substantially overbroad — it's hard to tell). The state asked the court to employ a remedy in this situation — to construe the statute narrowly to make it constitutional, that is, to say "Minnesota can only use this statute in cases involving false statements, and only by proving actual malice in cases involving public figures or matters of public interest." Courts are supposed to do that when they reasonably can rather than strike down an entire statute. Here, the court not unreasonably found that they'd have to fundamentally rewrite the statute to save it, and refused to do so. The line between narrowly construing a statute to save it and "rewriting" a statute is not perfectly clear.

The bottom line: the Minnesota court recognized that an archaic criminal libel statute was invalid when it didn't include the free speech protections afforded modern civil defamation defendants.

Eugene Volokh submitted a clearly effective amicus brief. Timothy Robert Turner escapes conviction, but hopefully never gets a job or relationship again thanks to Google.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. tsrblke says

    I'm kinda surprised there wasn't another way to punish this guy that didn't run afoul of first amendment law.
    Like identity theft…

  2. Anonymous Coward says

    "Timothy Robert Turner escapes conviction, but hopefully never gets a job or relationship again thanks to Google."

    Essentially what you're saying there is that you hope he will be constant drain on society and a potentially dangerous individual for the rest of his miserable life. If he can't work to provide for himself, he will just end up costing the taxpayers money. If he can't form relationships (romantic or otherwise) with anyone, he will probably be at much higher risk of engaging in further criminal activities. Both cases are bad for us. That doesn't sound like justice to me.

  3. says

    +1 to the anonymous coward, was going to say that myself. While I don't care about his relationship status, his status as scum doesn't entitle him to get free money from the rest of us in perpetuity.

  4. piperTom says

    I don't disagree with Anonymous Coward on Mr. Turner's future prospects. I do disagree about it being justice. To start with, it's inevitable; he did it to himself. More importantly, his assholery is now revealed to his next (potential) girlfriend before she gets emotionally close to him. It it SHE who benefits most from his exposure. The same is probably true for a potential employer. In the end, he winds up on the dole (or in prison for something else) after those other people are personally harmed.

  5. ... says

    Throwing someone in jail costs us just the same as supporting someone that cannot support themselves. Not clear that either path is going to reform Mr. Turner. Perhaps there is no 'justice'.

  6. Wyrm says

    I tend to agree with Anonymous Coward. Shunning people forever is what our "fair and balanced" justice system (or as close as we can get) is supposed to avoid.
    It's supposed to give criminals a hope of rehabilitation, a right to change their ways.

    Turner is a terrible example of a human being, he did something terrible and should be punished for it.
    But he must also be given a chance to mend his ways, to live normally after he pays his debt to society and to the women he wronged, lest he becomes worse than he already is because he has no other choice.

    So, the problem at hand is that he avoided sanction because of a flaw in the system. That doesn't give others the right to deliver their own brand of "justice".
    Punishment delivered outside the justice system is dangerous. Let's remember that "vigilante justice" is not "justice".

  7. tlitb1 says

    "Timothy Robert Turner escapes conviction, but hopefully never gets a job or relationship again thanks to Google."

    Or he could move to Europe, have Google remove all references to him under the 'right to forgotten', and then get a job at FIFA?

  8. Lokiwi says

    Definitely seems like a weird decision on the charges. Wasn't there some woman that got convicted on the basis of soliciting someone on Craigslist to come to (not actually) her house and rape her? Not an exact parallel but similar. Especially considering that he was soliciting sex on behalf of a minor, seems like there could have been more legitimate crimes to charge him with.

  9. says


    You threw in the FIFA thing at the end and I went from a respectable chuckle to ruining my keyboard.

  10. nk says

    Illinois's criminal libel statute, now repealed, was upheld in Beauharnais v. Illinois under the fighting words doctrine — it contained "breach of the peace" language. Minniesoda's statute appears to go back to pre-Revolutionary War times when the "bigger the truth, the bigger the libel".

    This case is a good illustration of the difference between First Amendment jurisprudence and ordinary criminal jurisprudence. In the usual criminal jurisprudence, a statute meets Constitutional Due Process scrutiny of it reasonably warns the defendant of the illegality of his conduct. No close scrutiny.

  11. Mr Shotgun says

    I'm sorry, I am failing to see how Ken calling out Mr Turner's terrible actions as terrible is some form of vigilante justice. He acted like a dick-bag, and being a dick-bag is not illegal. It is, however, disapproved of by most people and they are well within their right to not associate with him based on his past dick-baggish behavior. I fail to see the problem.

  12. joshuaism says

    @Anonymous Coward
    I'm sure Ken is just engaging in a bit of superfluous hyperbole to show his disdain for Timothy Turner's behavior. In order to heap any amount of praise on this guy's case he has to condemn him outright lest someone think Ken approves of Timothy's actions. That's why Ken just threw Timothy Turner under the bus here.

    But just because Timothy Turner has ended up with his name on the internet doesn't mean he is doomed to a lifetime of scorn. People can recover from an episode of asshattery and become productive members of society. But before he does, he may need to spend a number of years wandering in the wilderness, or possibly start over in another state where someone else's mugshot comes up as the number one hit for his name on the internet. That would be just.

    Honestly, what we currently have is perhaps one of the best outcomes Timothy Turner could have expected. Sure he is the number one google hit for his name right now, but his pic isn't posted with his case, and he doesn't have to cop to any criminal convictions on a job application.

  13. En Passant says

    Much of this historical tidbit below is from recollection of reading of cases and history, so I may be wrong on those. But the text I cite is real.

    CA once had a criminal libel statute somewhat like the Minnesota statute. But there was one interesting CA constitutional twist. The early 20th century CA constitution had among its free speech provisions one which granted the jury in a criminal libel case the express right and power to rule on law as well as fact.

    The provision was a special case that permitted what we now call "jury nullification".

    The CA constitution is unlike the US constitution. It is in some ways more like a bag of statutes. Both the criminal libel statute, and the special constitutional provision for jury nullification in criminal libel cases were removed by the legislature during a "general housecleaning" of the state constitution and statutes in the 1980s.

    There were very few CA prosecutions for criminal libel in the 20th century. A couple involved the Wobblies, aka The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), labor unrest, and pamphleteering for strikes. I think a youngish lawyer, Pat Brown, Governor Moonbeam's father, prosecuted one.

    Here is the relevant text from the CA constitution as it stood in 1963. The provisions were enacted in 1849 and revised in 1879. Emphases are mine:

    Article I
    Declaration of Rights

    Liberty of Speech and of the Press
    Sec. 9. … In all criminal prosecutions for libels, the truth my be given in evidence to the jury; and if it shall appear to the jury that the matter charged as libelous is true, and was published with good motives and for justifiable ends, the party shall be acquitted; and the jury shall have the right to determine the law and the fact.

  14. nk says

    I know someone who, as a young man, besmirched a young lady's reputation in a much smaller way than the punk in this case. Her brothers knifed him. He survived the experience (otherwise I would not know him) but the point was driven home. The deebweasel, here, is lucky to be living in a society where he could avoid both a knifing and jail. Public scorn is practically a gift.

  15. Rick says

    But he must also be given a chance to mend his ways, to live normally after he pays his debt to society…So, the problem at hand is that he avoided sanction because of a flaw in the system.

    I'll bite. What, then, do you consider his debt to society to be since society hasn't sent him a bill?

  16. Fasolt says

    I wonder if Timothy Robert Turner would have agreed with the court's decision if someone had posted his phone number in the MLM ads on Craigslist suggesting that anyone who was so inclined could come on over to his place and spend some time going through his back issues of "Blueboy" with him and see what pops up.

  17. says

    I wonder if something like this would/could be covered under pimping/human trafficking laws: "It shall be illegal for any person to advertise another for sexual services. It shall be illegal for any person to publicly identify another or disclose their physical location or address, phone number, photographs, or electronic identifications including but not limited to personal accounts on any website, for the purpose of advertising them for sexual services."

  18. sinij says

    I don't see anything in Timothy Robert Turner's conduct that would or should disqualify him from shoveling shit for living.

  19. Fasolt says

    I should have used the acronym "MSM" in my post above. I was thinking "men looking for men", not multi-level marketing. Unless Amway is branching out into "personal services" now.

  20. LrdDimwit says

    @AnonymousCoward: The man's actions demonstrate a propensity for deviousness, dishonesty, and petty maliciousness. I sure as hell wouldn't want him anywhere near a business I run. (If I had one to run, that is.) Businesses have to trust their employees in many ways – with money, with access to their equipment and facilities, with the ability to ruin the company's reputation (like Paul Christoforo did, as covered here a few years ago) or get it in trouble for breaking the law. And this man's actions tell me everything I need to know to decide that I don't trust him – which means I don't want him working for me.

    Or to put it another way – Timothy Robert Turner is highly likely to have been a drain on society's resources *just by being Timothy Robert Turner* – I doubt his attitude extended only to his ex. I imagine he probably lies and cheats his way through other things as well, and those all impose their own costs. Cutting him off is simple damage control. Sure, there are costs associated with said cutting off. But it also reduces his ability to hurt the rest of society at large even more.

  21. Jon H says

    The problem here seems more like some kind of reckless endangerment, rather than libel.

    A craigslist post like this might be deleted after only a few people have seen it, in which case your reputation is unlikely to take a hit. But, if one of the people who *did* see it actually believes it's real, and tries to act on it, that could be quite dangerous.

  22. Dan Weber says

    In this specific example, Timothy Turner is a sufficiently generic name with many other hits that he won't suffer too badly. Or a simple change of how he presents his first name. There is a Tim Turner who has done much worse that clearly isn't him, and a fictional Timmy Turner, both with huge Google footprints.

  23. says

    Presumably, Mr. Turner still faces the possibility of a civil suit by the maligned women. (Unless the Minnesota statues around civil liability are similarly defective)

  24. says

    […] (1) the defamatory matter is true and is communicated
    with good motives and for justifiable ends; or […]

    That's an oxymoron. If something is defamatory it's not true, and if it's true it can't be defamatory. That's the law as established through statute and defamation suits.